Fla. Legislature sends ethics bill to Gov. Scott

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The Florida Commission on Ethics would have more authority to collect fines and lawmakers would be banned from lobbying any state agency for two years after leaving office under a wide-ranging ethics bill that was sent to Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday.

The bill also would prohibit lawmakers from voting on any bills that could directly affect their personal finances and it would keep them from taking government jobs while in office.

"This bill will raise the ethical standard for all elected officials in the state of Florida," House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said after the House unanimously approved it.

The bill (SB 2) was a priority for Senate President Don Gaetz and was the first passed by the Senate on the legislative session's opening day last month. The House made changes Wednesday and sent it back to the Senate, which unanimously approved it.

Gaetz said it was his proudest moment as a senator.

The Commission on Ethics currently has little power to collect fines against elected officials. It has written off $1 million in fines over the past decade, calling them essentially uncollectable.

Under the bill, the commission could garnish wages. The legislation would also extend from four years to 20 years the amount of time for the commission to collect fines following an offense. The commission could also take complaints from the governor, Florida Department of Law Enforcement and state and U.S. attorneys. The commission would also post officials' financial disclosure forms online.

"Lawmakers are beginning the process of cleaning up the government and restoring trust with Floridians," Dan Krassner, executive director of the government watchdog group Integrity Florida, said in an email. "After a 36-year drought, Florida lawmakers should be commended for advancing ethics reform in our state Capitol ... While there is still more work to do to make ethics laws stronger, Florida is finally moving in the right direction."

Lawmakers would be required to take ethics training under the bill, which also sets rules for establishing blind trusts to manage officials' assets so they can avoid conflicts.

Another provision protects candidates from opponents who might use the commission to launch political attacks. Right now, the commission can't take up a complaint filed five days before an election until after the election is held. The bill doesn't allow complaints to be filed against a candidate for 30 days before an election unless the person who files it has firsthand knowledge of a violation, rather than relying on hearsay.

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